Mahler: Symphony No. 3. Mihoko Fujimura, contralto; Knaben des Bamberger Domchores, Damen des Chores der Bamberger Symphoniker and Bamberger Symphoniker – Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie conducted by Jonathan Nott. Tudor. $29.99 (2 SACDs).
Peter Schickele: A Year in the Catskills; Gardens; What Did You Do Today at Jeffrey’s House?; Dream Dances; Diversions. Blair Woodwind Quintet (Jane Kirchner, flute; Jared Hauser, oboe; Cassandra Lee, clarinet; Cynthia Estill, bassoon; Leslie Norton, horn); Felix Wang, cello; Melissa Rose, piano. Naxos. $9.99.
There is no larger canvas in music than Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, and no work that so effectively encompasses as much of the world – which was just what Mahler intended this symphony to do. Despite Leonard Bernstein’s famous statement that music does not mean anything, that there is no absolute correspondence between what the composer creates and a specific set of pictures or a specific story, Mahler’s Third stands as an exemplary piece of storytelling from an extremely personal perspective. The gigantic six-movement work (originally intended to have seven: the planned finale became the last movement of the Fourth) takes listeners from the sounds of nature, through a series of intermediate stages, to a broad and beautiful finale that Mahler originally called “What love tells me” (he suppressed the movements’ descriptions but then let them be known as general guides). The astonishing thing about this gigantic 100-minute symphony is that it is simultaneously a deeply personal statement by Mahler and a work into which each listener can read what he or she wishes…or, rather, what he or she feels. It is a tremendously moving work when it is performed with the care and sensitivity that it receives from Jonathan Nott and the Bamberger Symphoniker – Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie. Nott lets the enormous first movement (which lasts longer than most complete Mozart symphonies) build gradually to a series of climaxes, each more intense than the last: listeners not exhausted by the building and rebuilding of the musical structure will be tremendously exhilarated by the process. The excellent SACD sound helps make the contrast of the gentle second movement more effective than usual, and Nott actually produces a minuet-like rhythm – which Mahler calls for but which is often not clear in performances. The third movement has bite as well as beauty and sounds more scherzo-like under Nott than it often does under other conductors. The vocal movements – the fourth and fifth of the symphony – are well differentiated here, since Nott uses a true contralto, Mihoko Fujimura, for the Nietzsche poem, where other conductors often use mezzo-sopranos. Fujimura’s dark vocal tone imbues the poem with added depth and personal anguish, providing a strong and highly effective contrast to the bright choral movement that follows. But interestingly, Nott makes this a more serious movement than most other conductors do: there is joy from the children’s chorus here, but it is muted rather than ebullient. This maintains a serious tone to bridge to the finale, the crown of this work. And the picture Mahler paints here is heartfelt indeed – with Nott pacing the movement judiciously, so it moves rather than stagnates (as it sometimes can), yet still delves deeply into the composer’s emotions and therefore those of the audience. As a whole, this is a beautifully played and very warm performance of the symphony, one that is well attuned to the work’s many moods and the many large-scale portraits of nature, humanity and the ineffable that Mahler paints within it.
There is tone painting on a much smaller scale in the new CD of chamber music by Peter Schickele, who is best known as the creator of “P.D.Q. Bach” but here appears in more-serious guise. This is not to say that Schickele lacks humor: this music, largely tonal, often has mildly amusing elements. But it is not parodistic music in “P.D.Q. Bach” mode, nor is it deliberately imitative in the way Schickele has long been as part of his “P.D.Q. Bach” offerings – for example, by stringing together other composers’ themes into incongruous combinations that he then claims as his own. This disc shows Schickele (born 1935) as a serious musician with a fine grasp of chamber-music writing and a predilection for miniatures: with the exception of one movement that runs seven minutes, none on this CD lasts more than five, and most of the movements are quite a bit shorter (usually a minute or two). Schickele strings these short pieces together into works intended to evoke a particular time, place or mood. A Year in the Catskills (2009) goes through the four seasons and then concludes with a fifth movement called “Fast Driving” that is designed to dispel any melancholy from the previous “Winter: Lament,” which is actually more thoughtful than sorrowful and is certainly not tragic. Gardens (1968), for oboe and piano, has three movements simply labeled “Morning,” “Noon” and “Night,” and is an impressionistic piece with somewhat updated harmonies. What Did You Do Today at Jeffrey’s House? (1988) is a sort of “childhood reminiscence” for horn and piano, its final boogie-woogie being its most interesting element. Dream Dances (also 1988), for flute, oboe and cello, starts with a most un-Haydnesque minuet and progresses through a jitterbug, waltz, galop and finally a sarabande, with all the movements showing strong jazz influences and most bearing only a passing resemblance to their usual form. The concluding sarabande has some of the hymnal qualities of Ives. Diversions (1963) – written for oboe, clarinet and bassoon – is a bit Ivesian, too, especially in its final movement, which intends to evoke a New York City bar: Ives did the same thing (considerably more raucously) in Central Park in the Dark. The performers, all faculty members at Vanderbilt University, approach the works with affection and enjoyment, and clearly relish compositions that give each instrument a chance to shine while combining the voices in pleasant if not very aurally challenging ways. Schickele’s experiments with sonority – his uses of unusual instrumental combinations – are the most interesting thing here; they and the fine performances earn the CD a (+++) rating even though the music itself, while well-made, is not particularly distinguished. These are small tone pictures, never pretending to be more significant than they are; and Schickele keeps his well-honed sense of humor rather too successfully suppressed in most of them. The result is works that are pleasant enough and appear enjoyable to perform, but that, in terms of listening pleasure, are a bit on the pale side.